Indeed, the families of the victims are a key
component in 9/11 remembrance and will continue to be so for the foreseeable
future. They are involved in every aspect, from the planning of museum exhibits to the organization of memorial events. Many of the television specials that aired
on the 10th anniversary were centered on the
stories of family members and survivors. But at some point our collective memory will evolve away from the
personal. The events of 9/11 will
eventually take their place within early 21st century history and be connected
to the complex chains of what came before and after.
We can see this in the evolution of our own collective memory of the
American Civil War. For the first
few decades, remembrances involved the veterans on both sides
of the divide. These men, both the living and the recently deceased, served as a direct link to the past, and remembrance ceremonies were overwhelmingly focused on their heroism and sacrifice. Reunions with
former comrades and even with former enemies ensured that the war would be
framed around shared personal experiences.
For white southerners, the celebration of veterans assuaged the pain
of battlefield defeat and the end of slavery. Northerners saw their soldiers' sacrifices as necessary for the preservation of the
Union. The losses suffered by African
American families came to be seen as part of a painful but promising narrative that led them from slavery to full
citizenship in a newly restored nation.
The sheer number of cemeteries, monuments, and memorials that dot our
landscape bears witness to the visceral effects of loss, as well as survivors'
need to make sense of it in ways that allowed them to forge ahead.
With the death of the Civil War generation, our collective memory gradually
became more detached and academic. Something personal was lost in that
transformation, but the new perspective was much more conducive to understanding the war's complexity. Only in the last few decades
have Americans been willing to deal with the tough questions of race and
slavery and their roles in shaping not only the war but the short- and long-term consequences of
the conflict. These explorations would have been unthinkable 50 years ago during the war's centennial celebrations.
At some point, the generation that lived through the events of 9/11
will hand over the burden of remembrance to a new generation of Americans. Their interpretation of the event will
be informed by a more remote reading of the historical record, which will
inevitably shape new forms of remembrance and commemoration. Contentious subjects such as the cause and consequences of the attacks will be debated in ways they may not
What will not be lost,
however, is the need to remember and honor individual lives and stories. Even today, Americans connect to the Civil War through a sense of shared loss and a need to remember the scale of death and destruction wrought. To truly grasp this dimension of history, we rely on individual stories and personal accounts that help to collapse the distinction between past and present.